In a strange mix of matrimonial mistrust and medical miracles, "The Painted Veil" stands alone as a period soap opera among the movies of 2006. A fine production with first-rate performances, it's surprising that it slipped past Oscar without a single nomination.
Maybe, actor/co-producer Edward Norton is to blame. His other film last year, "The Illusionist," is also a quality film, which barely squeezed out one nominating nod from the Academy.
Based on the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, "The Painted Veil" tells the story of a pampered rich British girl, Kitty (co-producer Naomi Watts), who is forced into a loveless marriage with stuffy British bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (Norton). The marriage is loveless from her end only. However, the good doctor is too reserved to show much infatuation... at first.
Before long, Kitty is bedding down with a married rake, Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), whom she deludes herself into thinking will drop his wife if Walter becomes aware of the truth. But when the "fit does hit the shan," Charlie's loyalty is to his wife and his lies.
As for Walter, he shows a cruel, almost suicidal side. He gives Kitty the option of an adultery-based divorce or a life with him battling a cholera epidemic in backwoods China. Because this is upper-crust English society in the 1920's, scandal is out and China is in.
Hot, bothered and miserable, Kitty finds herself going out of her mind in China, where Walter is becoming a local hero as he tracks down the cause of the epidemic. Her only salvation is doped-up British diplomat Waddington (Toby Jones, who played Truman Capote in the less famous of the two recent Capote films, "Infamous"), and the children of an orphanage run by Mother Superior (an unrecognizable Diana Rigg).
The Fanes are eventually drawn together by the goodness of their deeds and the desperation of isolation. Also, the threat of a nationalist revolution in China has a way of uniting anyone English. When love rekindles, however, it is tragically late. But, isn't that the way of all great love stories? Just ask Romeo and Juliet.
Slow, yet compelling, "The Painted Veil" smolders without ever exploding. It certainly kept under Oscar's radar.